All Hands on Deck
Nadia Dahab’s roundabout path to the law and pro bono immigration work
Published in 2019 Oregon Super Lawyers magazine on July 18, 2019
Nadia Dahab followed her father’s career path only to abandon it; but with the law she’s found a connection back to him.
Both parents were professors at the University of Nebraska (mother: marketing; father: civil engineering), and as a child Dahab spent a lot of time in the engineering building. “I went there for Take Your Daughter to Work Day when I was six years old,” she remembers. “I loved math and science and I wanted to make my parents really proud. [Engineering] was the logical next thing.”
Until it wasn’t. By the time she graduated from the University of Nebraska, doubts loomed. She still decided to give engineering a shot—with a caveat. “I wanted to get out of Nebraska and be my own person,” she says, “not always just Dr. Dahab’s daughter.”
At a consulting firm in Dallas, she wound up loving Texas so much she stayed for five years rather than the two she anticipated. But then the global financial meltdown hit and development dried up. “It seemed like as good a time as any to make a change,” she says.
As part of her job, she adds, “I worked with water rights lawyers, city attorneys, land use lawyers and our in-house counsel. I thought maybe I could use what I knew from engineering and combine it with the field of law.” She also flashed back to a high school experience. “This sounds silly, but I’d done the Center for Civic Education’s ‘We the People’ Constitution team. It’s like a congressional hearing. We went to nationals. We studied the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments and it was the coolest thing. I didn’t do anything related to this in college, but by the end of college, it was in the back of my mind that ‘Maybe law school is something I’ll look into one day.’”
After getting her J.D. from the University of Oregon, she got clerkships at the Oregon Supreme Court and the 9th Circuit. At federal court in particular, she says, “You’re forced to come in cold to new areas—immigration, bankruptcy—the most complex areas of law.”
Now a complex litigation associate at Stoll Berne, Dahab is spending a lot of pro bono hours in one of those areas. Following President Trump’s Executive Order 13769—the so-called Muslim travel ban—in January 2017, Dahab took her first immigration case. It’s been, she says, “all hands on deck” ever since.
When more than 120 immigrant detainees were transferred to a federal prison in Sheridan, she worked with the Innovation Law Lab and the ACLU to ensure they had access to attorneys. She also co-wrote an amicus brief after Attorney General Jeff Sessions certified the case known as Matter of A-B- to himself. “Our thesis was ‘You are a white nationalist and therefore you must recuse yourself,’” Dahab says with a laugh. “We didn’t win that one.”
Dahab’s first immigration case is ongoing. For more than two years, she’s been pursuing an appeal on behalf of an immigrant who was ordered removed in absentia. Dahab argued the matter in the summer of 2018. “It was the hardest argument I’d ever made,” she says. At press time, the 5th Circuit had yet to issue a decision.
In March, she argued another case in the 9th Circuit. “My client has been in the United States over 10 years and pleaded no contest to third-degree robbery under Oregon law—a crime that rendered him categorically ineligible for relief from deportation,” she says. “After he served his sentence, ICE picked him up and ordered him removed. We got the 9th Circuit to say third-degree robbery does not render somebody ineligible for relief, so he gets to now go back and apply for relief.”
The cases are close to her heart. Decades ago, Dahab’s father immigrated to the U.S. from Libya.
“My dad wasn’t seeking humanitarian protection. But if he came here now, he might be, given how much has changed in Libya. Knowing the fear and danger that my family in Libya lives in …” Dahab trails off. “If I can help someone living in that kind of imminent danger find a safe place to be, then that’s what I’m here for.”